EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Ryan Tannehill on crutches is not a good look for the Miami Dolphins.
Neither is falling behind the New York Jets 7-0 early with a kid quarterback named Bryce Petty lighting up the Dolphins secondary with a 40-yard touchdown pass.
Cameron Wake sliced deep into that frosty layer of anxiety, though, with a burst of speed and a blast of what he perceives to be reality.
The Dolphins, 9-5 and surging, shouldn’t be struggling with the Jets, he figures, no matter where or when the game is played.
Shouldn’t be made to look foolish by check-down passes to running back Bilal Powell, who had eight catches by halftime.
Shouldn’t be letting a rare postseason opportunity sink into the same old swamp where so many other Miami seasons have vanished.
Cameron’s first-quarter sack of Petty, and the fumble that it forced, and the avalanche that it started, was the most important play of this vital 34-13 Miami victory because it sold all those self-evident truths to everyone else.
Matt Moore, tentative prior to that Wake-up call, cashed in for four touchdown passes once he got up and rolling. A career-high four touchdown passes.
Tight end Dion Sims caught two of those scoring passes, which was a career best for him, too.
Walt Aikens blocked a Jets punt and returned it for a touchdown. That’s two scoring plays in two weeks, added to his return of a failed conversion kick by Arizona. Two scoring plays in an entire season aren’t supposed to come for guys like Aikens, but something special is happening to a lot of Dolphins right now, individually and all together.
What was different about Saturday night was the size of the winning margin. Every winning effort has been huge, however, because when stacked up from Oct. 16 to Christmas week they’re actually starting to count for something.
Start with the certainty that this will be a winning season, the first since 2008.
Postseason possibilities come next, but there’s no dismissing them now with games against Buffalo and New England remaining. Nothing easy about that finish, but other wild-card contenders have their problems, too.
Finally, there’s the long-range view of Adam Gase as the coach who can crank this franchise up for years to come. At 1-4, he looked like a rookie. At 9-5, tossing challenge flags at all the right moments and winding Moore up for his first start in five years, Gase looks like he was born to be a head coach in this league.
Tannehill on crutches, it turns out, is not a case of game over.
Think instead of bonus games being added to the schedule, bonus opportunities to plan a party around a Dolphins weekend, to discover a gear other than neutral and reverse.
Wake is ready for it, with that sack and a first-ever NFL interception on Saturday night. Ndamukong Suh is ready, too, and so are Andre Branch and Earl Mitchell and Jordan Phillips. The power of Miami’s highly-paid defensive front is truly scaring other teams now, and buying time for both the Dolphins offense and the lesser players on Miami’s defense to catch up.
Do you realize that Byron Maxwell barelyi played in this game, which forced rookie Xavien Howard back into the lineup and into the company of Jets star Brandon Marshall? The X Man did just fine, too. Through three quarters Marshall had just one catch for 16 yards and after that, like most of America, I stopped caring.
The Dolphins, with Moore hitting Kenny Stills and Jarvis Landry for one tape-measure touchdown pass each and Tony Lippett snatching one of the Jets’ deep tries from the sky, were well in control by then, and it’s actually starting to become a habit.
They’re changing right before out eyes, winning with or without big rushing days from Jay Ajayi. Winning with or without Tannehill, the only quarterback the franchise has known 2012.
Winning because they are, by mathematical definition, a winning team.
There are still mountains to climb, but no longer does a molehill like MetLife Stadium need to be the one that Miami can’t clear.
This is fairly amazing stuff, and it all started, at least on Saturday night, with a sack and a fumble and reboot of everyone’s attitude toward the Dolphins and their classic December woes.
Miami means business this time, no matter who is in the lineup, no matter what the tiebreakers say.
It’s refreshing, especially for a guy like Wake, who is 34 and getting younger every day.